BAGHDAD, Iraq – Thrown into a panic by shouts that a suicide bomber was in their midst, thousands of Shiite pilgrims in a procession across a Baghdad bridge suddenly stampeded, killing more than 840 people, many of whom plunged to their deaths in the Tigris River.

It was Iraq’s single largest loss of life since the U.S. invasion in March 2003.

Most of the dead were women, children and the elderly, Iraqi officials said. More than 323 people were injured, and officials at the five hospitals treating the wounded reported being overwhelmed and struggling to cope.

The magnitude of the tragedy could be seen in hospital hallways, where bodies of victims were piled because morgues had filled up. Iraqi officials said the death toll could rise.

Pandemonium ensued when word that a suicide bomber was in the crowd spread through the legions of Shiites trying to make their way across Al Aimmah Bridge toward the Khadimiyah mosque in northern Baghdad. There was no suicide attacker, but in the chaos scores of people on the bridge were crushed underfoot and even more drowned when they leapt into the Tigris 100 feet below.

“It seemed like it all happened in a second,” said Khaled Hamid, 30, splayed on a bed in pain at al-Kindi Hospital with injuries to both legs. “People were screaming, children and women were falling to the ground, and people were just stepping on them. Then afterward, there were dead people everywhere.”

The incident cast a pall over a nation already on edge after weeks of divisive debate over its new constitution and wearied by months of sectarian conflict between Sunni and Shiite Arabs. However, Iraqi leaders stressed that they believed the bridge stampede was a tragic accident and said they had no evidence that it was linked to Iraq’s two-year insurgency.

About 8 a.m., nearly three hours before the stampede, insurgents fired mortars into the throngs gathering to visit Khadimiyah mosque, killing seven people and wounding at least 30. However, Iraqi officials said that attack was not linked to what happened at Al Aimmah Bridge.

Questions were likely to be raised about whether authorities failed to adequately plan for the pilgrimage, a yearly event that always attracts hundreds of thousands of Shiite pilgrims from across Iraq.

Many witnesses said the chaos was exacerbated by concrete barricades along the bridge that were meant to deter car bombers but that effectively hindered pilgrims’ means of escape. Ambulances trying to whisk the injured to hospitals could not get through side streets choked with thousands of people.

In the end, though, the tragedy appeared to be triggered by a single voice – someone’s scream that a suicide bomber was at large, said Iraqi Defense Minister Sadoun al-Dulaimi.

“Crowds gathered, a certain scream caused chaos in the crowd, the crowd reacted, and this sorrowful incident took place,” Dulaimi said.

Hundreds of thousands of Shiites from across Iraq gathered in Baghdad’s Khadimiyah neighborhood to pay tribute to Mousa al-Kadhim, a 9th Century Shiite Muslim imam and one of the sect’s holiest figures. The anniversary of his death is regarded as Shiite Islam’s third-holiest annual event.

To get to Khadimiyah mosque, pilgrims had to funnel into Al Aimmah Bridge and cross its 300-yard span. In addition to sets of concrete barricades placed along the bridge, Iraqi security officials set up a bridge checkpoint on the western bank of the Tigris to screen passing pilgrims.

The mortar attack appeared to be directed at pilgrims near the mosque. U.S. military helicopter crews saw insurgents firing the mortars and fired at them, the U.S. military said. Later, more than a dozen people in the area where the mortars were fired from were detained for questioning, a U.S. military statement said.

The attack did not deter the throngs of pilgrims, who kept marching toward the mosque.

“Visiting Imam Mousa Kadhim is a big thing for us; we have to visit him, even if we die,” said Adel Karim, 31, who broke his pelvis when he jumped off the bridge and landed on the concrete embankment alongside the river. “Even if terrorists attack the shrine, we are ready to sacrifice ourselves just to visit him.”

Sometime around 11 a.m., shouts that a suicide bomber might be in the crowd triggered a wave of panic. “People were shouting, “Suicide bombers! Suicide bombers!’ and people started to panic,” said Akhmad Mutlag, a Shiite at the scene. “They began to try to escape, stepping all over each other.”

The chaotic scene was aggravated by the fact that the crowds were rushing for safety in two directions – the pilgrims on the bridge were divided between those heading toward the mosque, and those returning from it.

“I saw children trampled to death,” said Ali Abd Mohammed, 34, a government worker. “People were stepping on them, even though they were choking and couldn’t breathe. I saw several women who fell over and were stepped on by the crowds.”

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Falah Nahim, 15, found himself caught in the middle of the bridge. The throngs in front of him suddenly were shoved backward, forcing him to the pavement. He got up and tried to run, but an ambulance crew that had arrived began spraying the crowd with some kind of agent that Nahim thought might be bleach, possibly an attempt to disperse the crowd. Others in the crowd pulled the man out of the ambulance and beat him, Nahim said.

Nahim and several other witnesses said their escape was hampered by concrete security barricades that hindered movement on the bridge. “People had no means of escape, so they just jumped off the bridge,” Nahim said.

Caught in the crush of people between the concrete barricades, Falah Hassan, 45, clambered up onto the edge of the bridge and leapt into the air. “Instead of landing in the water, I hit the bank and my shoulder slammed into the concrete,” Hassan said, his right arm in a sling. “If they opened the bridge, people would have crossed safely. But we had no way out.”

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By midafternoon, Iraqi officials began pointing fingers. Iraq’s health minister, Abdel Mutaaleb Ali, blamed Interior Minister Bayan Jabr and al-Dulaimi for not providing a “safe atmosphere” for Shiites visiting Khadimiyah and demanded the officials’ resignations.

Al-Dulaimi said security officials kept the bridge closed for the last three months because of concerns about car bombs and other terrorist attacks. The bridge connects Aadimiyah, a volatile, Sunni Arab neighborhood, with Khadimiyah, a Shiite district regarded as somewhat safer.

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Al-Dulaimi said he recently agreed to reopen the bridge in time for the pilgrimage, a decision he said he made reluctantly after being pressured to do so by people he refused to name.

“I was against opening the bridge today,” al-Dulaimi said. “But it was reopened as a response to people’s wishes.”

Elsewhere, two U.S. soldiers were killed and three wounded in separate incidents in central Iraq, the military told The Associated Press. One soldier was killed by a roadside bomb Tuesday in the city of Iskandariyah in central Iraq. Another soldier was killed and three wounded when a bomb exploded Wednesday next to their patrol near the town of Samarra, 60 miles north of Baghdad.



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